Monster computers now online at Lawrence Livermore

Lawrence Livermore is now home to two of the most powerful computers on the planet

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is now home to two of the most powerful computers on the planet: the ASC Purple supercomputer, and the world's most powerful high performance machine, Blue Gene/L. Three years in development, the completed versions of the systems have come online over the past few months and will be dedicated Thursday in a ceremony at the nuclear research facility.

Work on two systems began in 2002, when IBM won a U.S. Department of Energy contract to build the supercomputers, which were intended to restore U.S. prominence in the field of high performance computing. With more than 130,000 processors, Blue Gene/L is being used to study the movement and behavior of molecules, while the smaller, 12,000-processor ASC Purple is intended for nuclear weapon simulations.

Though Lawrence Livermore has been running smaller versions of the two systems, the laboratory has brought the supercomputers up to their full operational capacity over the past few months, according to Robin Goldstone, a program manager with the National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) Advance Simulation and Computing (ASC) program office, which oversees computing in U.S. national laboratories.

Lawrence Livermore accepted delivery of the full Blue Gene/L system at the end of September, Goldstone said. "It's operational. Like anything else, there are little things that need to be worked out, [but] it's basically being used to solve scientific problems for the NNSA."

The laboratory is running ASC Purple through a number of "acceptance tests" right now, but is expected to officially accept delivery of the system by year's end, Goldstone said.

Bringing two of the world's most powerful supercomputers online at the same time has been no small technical achievement, Goldstone said. "To integrate one of these machines would have been a huge challenge. To do two of them at the same time is a pretty amazing feat."

Though current benchmark numbers for Blue Gene/L and ASC Purple are not available, both will now most likely rank high on a list of the world's most powerful computers.

Blue Gene/L has a theoretical peak capacity of 367 teraflops, meaning that if operating perfectly it could perform 367 trillion calculations per second. The system's actual performance is expected to be much lower than this, however. IBM has said it expects Blue Gene/L to be capable of between 270 and 280 teraflops. An early version of Blue Gene/L, built to about half the size of the current system, was ranked the world's most powerful supercomputer last June, with a processing capacity of 136.8 teraflops.

ASC Purple has a theoretical peak capacity of 93 teraflops, about 50 percent greater than the number three-ranked supercomputer, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Columbia supercomputer, built by Silicon Graphics. A smaller, 9,480 processor version of the system was pegged at 60 teraflops in a July benchmark, according to IBM.

The next ranking of the world's top supercomputers, called the Top500 List, is expected to be released Nov. 12 at a supercomputing conference in Seattle.

Originally designed simply as a way of exploring new computer architectures that could be used to build petaflop-range supercomputers, Blue Gene has proved to have a number of scientific applications, said Don Johnston, a spokesman for Lawrence Livermore. "It was originally what they call a 'research machine,'" he said, "But from our perspective, it's certainly a production machine now."

Last year, IBM moved Blue Gene out of its research and development group and began selling the supercomputing systems under the brand name eServer Blue Gene. The servers are now being used by a variety of research institutions, including the Mayo Clinic, and The National Center for Atmospheric Research. Starting price for the 5.7 teraflop systems is $1.5 million.

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